That’s not painting, what he does.
—Picasso on Bonnard

The great art event in Paris this spring has been the resplendent Bonnard exhibition at Beaubourg.[1] Though not an exhibition on the grand scale—it does not even attempt to give us a comprehensive account of the artist’s oeuvre—it has nonetheless proved to be one of those events that stay in the mind as a major experience, continuing to reverberate in the memory as something unexpectedly weighty and profound.

Bonnard profound? Is it possible? It was not the way one was used to thinking of him. One went to this exhibition, as one had always gone to Bonnard’s work, expecting pleasure; and pleasure it certainly afforded in ample measure. But added to this expected pleasure was something else—a sense of the artist’s power, conviction, and authority which, for this observer at least, was something quite new. It was as if one were seeing the artist’s true originality for the first time.

It was no surprise, of course, to find that Bonnard had been a wonderful painter. One hardly expected to be disappointed in this respect. Bonnard had always been pleasing to the taste, and his ability to please remained undiminished. Yet it is one of the oddities of modern cultural life that the artists who give us such prompt and unalloyed pleasure are not usually the artists who loom largest on our artistic horizon. They tend to be taken for granted. By the standards that had come to be applied to modern painting, there was thus something suspicious in Bonnard’s unfailing ability to please—something that suggested timidity, perhaps, or a lack of intellectual initiative. Had he actually done anything new, or was he—as was sometimes said—only a latter-day Impressionist clinging to a moribund tradition?

Even among Bonnard’s admirers there had often persisted an element of uncertainty about these matters, and thus about the size and scope of his achievement—even, perhaps, about the nature of his achievement. However much one loved his work—and something like love was what Bonnard’s work usually inspired in those drawn to it—there was, all the same, a certain hesitancy about placing it right up there in the front rank of the art of his time. There always remained some doubt as to whether Bonnard was really “big” enough to take his place beside the largest and most commanding talents. Too accomplished to be considered minor and yet not sufficiently imposing to be regarded as one of the greatest, Bonnard seemed to be permanently lodged in a sort of limbo of indeterminacy where our affection for his work stood guard against whatever doubts our critical faculties might be inclined to bring to it.

If the passage of time has now altered our perspective on Bonnard—as I believe it has—this undoubtedly owes much to the fact that our increasing distance from the great days of the School of Paris has had the effect of casting all of its myriad achievements in a new historical light. No longer are we as inclined as we once were to look upon the radical innovations of the School of Paris as constituting its most distinctive contribution to the art of the modern era. Important as these innovations were, they now look in retrospect less like ends in themselves than a means of sustaining an artistic tradition whose last glorious chapter has turned out to be the School of Paris itself.

This applies even to Cubism, the most radical of all the innovations spawned by the School of Paris.

This applies even to Cubism, the most radical of all the innovations spawned by the School of Paris—at least to Cubism as it evolved in the work of Picasso, Braque, Gris, and Léger, its originators. Far from providing an alternative to the Western pictorial tradition or a liberation from its authority—which was what Cubism did lead to when certain of its ideas were appropriated and radically transformed by the Russian avant-garde and other groups intent upon a more far-reaching revolution in art-Cubism in its classic School of Paris modality remained, on the contrary, a highly inventive means of giving that tradition another lease on life.

But such leases are, by their very nature, impermanent, and this one certainly proved to be. The tradition to which Cubism had given new life was not something that could be handed on, as it turned out, and it wasn’t. It could only degenerate into a variety of pompier parodies of itself. In the art that succeeded its demise—whether Dubuffet’s in Paris or that of the Abstract Expressionists in New York—this tradition could still play a fugitive role, to be sure, serving as foil or irritant, as something to be resisted, ransacked, or transcended; but it could no longer offer direct sustenance. Which, incidentally is one reason why Balthus has come to loom so large in our thinking about the School of Paris and the pictorial tradition it embraced and embodied. For in the work of no other painter of his generation has the will to resist the death of this tradition so completely shaped the scale of the artist’s ambition and determined the quality of his oeuvre. Yet, however we may judge Balthus’s achievement, it is hard to think of it as anything but a grand—or, depending on one’s view of its success, only grandiose—epilogue to the great tradition it celebrates.

Difficult as it may be for us to think about the School of Paris in such terms—not, that is, as an avant-garde renaissance heralding the birth of a new era (which is pretty much the way we have all been brought up to see it), but as the glorious twilight on an epoch drawing to a close—this, I believe, is the way it is going to look to future generations. And this, in turn, is going to entail some drastic revisions in the way the history of modern painting will be written by, and for, those future generations. Already the existing textbook histories of the subject have begun to look obsolete, for they are based not on our current experience of the art in question but on an attempt to elucidate its intentions. Praiseworthy and even necessary as this task of elucidating intentions undoubtedly is, the result—more often than not—is the kind of partisan history that tells us a good deal more about what artists hoped to achieve (and therefore, all too often, are assumed to have achieved) than about what they actually did achieve. And being at the same time wholly governed by a suspension of disbelief in the efficacy of the various avant-garde ideologies that are thought to have determined the artists' goals, this history looks more and more like a species of intellectual fiction designed to guarantee a denouement that is at once foregone and unexamined. The least that can be said about such history is that it no longer accords with our experience of the art it is intended to explain. The worst that can be said of it is that it obscures the kinds of distinctions that loom largest in our experience of art and make it so precious to us.

It will be self-evident to anyone who has pondered these matters that certain artists have greatly benefitted from this state of affairs while certain others have suffered. It is ideally suited to the interests, for example, of a figure like Marcel Duchamp, whose actual accomplishment is so slender as to border at times on the non-existent, but it could not be anything but severely damaging to an artist like Bonnard, whose work cannot be made to accommodate the requisite categories and classifications without injury to the very quality of its existence. The priority given to ideas in Duchamp guarantees him a high position in any scenario that favors ideas at the expense of artistic realization. By contrast, Bonnard is an artist who seems to have had no “ideas” at all—except, of course, those that could be articulated by his paintbrush. Yet can anyone really doubt that Bonnard is the superior artist?

Alas, such doubt—never argued, to be sure, but simply assumed—has been a commonplace in the cultural life of the last quarter-century. And in the judgment implicit in this adverse comparison we can still hear the echoes, perhaps, of that curious attack on Bonnard which appeared in the pages of no less a journal than Cahiers d’Art in 1947, the year of the artist’s death at the age of seventy-nine. That article was very likely inspired by Picasso, for whom Cahiers d’Art served as a kind of house organ and whose own ferociously critical view of Bonnard was subsequently reported in detail by Franchise Gilot in her memoir, Life with Picasso. The title of the article asked the question: “Pierre Bonnard—est-il un grand peintre?” And the conclusion of the article gave the following answer: “It is evident that this reverence [for Bonnard] is shared only by people who know nothing about the grave difficulties of art and cling above all to what is facile and agreeable.”[2] Some version of this judgment will always, I suppose, be the view of professional avant-gardists in every generation, and it is for this reason that Bonnard has survived as a kind of displaced person in the art of his time.

Not the least of the many amazing things about the current exhibition at Beaubourg is the way it instantly sweeps aside all these questions and equivocations—including those that one has carried in one’s own head for years—to reveal an artist of overwhelming power and intensity. An artist, moreover, of great originality who, though something of a slow starter, showed a remarkable tenacity and independence in perfecting his own highly individual vision over the course of a long career.

It was a wise decision, I think, to accord Bonnard’s work of the Nineties little more than a token representation in this exhibition in order to concentrate on the paintings of his maturity. (Of the sixty-three paintings in the exhibition, fifty are drawn from the years 1920-47.) For the Bonnard we associate with la belle époque, while an artist of enormous charm, intelligence, and vivacity, was above all a public artist, obliged to compete in the marketplace for a living. This he managed to do with distinction, producing a dazzling array of posters, illustrations, stage décors, and the like—many of which are familiar to us as classic examples of Art Nouveau design. But we do not encounter the real power of the artist until we meet with what, by contrast, had better be called the “private” Bonnard—a painter of Baudelaireian sensuality who fashioned out of the most “unpromising” materials, namely the abandoned remnants of late Impressionist and Post-Impressionist picture-making which the Cubists had nominated for oblivion, a style of uncompromising rigor.

The earliest of the paintings in which this private Bonnard reveals himself is the sleeping nude called La Sieste (1900). This is a painting with an illustrious history, having first been collected by Leo and Gertrude Stein and subsequently by Kenneth Clark. (It now reposes in the collection of the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia.) With its forthright depiction of a sleeping female nude on a rumbled bed, it strikes us straightaway as an archetypal image of fin de siècle eroticism, and we can hardly doubt that it commemorates a personal experience. Yet, as with so much that we encounter in the private Bonnard, what appears to be the most candid avowal of personal experience is subsumed in an artistic strategy of considerable complexity, and one that tends, if not quite to deny this element of the personal, at least to relegate it to a secondary order of importance. Though not as audacious in either its structure or its angle of vision as Bonnard’s pictures would shortly become, La Sieste nonetheless gives us a first glimpse of that luminous, soft-edge geometry—scaffoldings of vertical and horizontal bands and blocks of color as deftly deployed in relation to the shape of the support as anything in a Mondrian or a Noland—which evolved into one of the hallmarks of his style. The formal effect of this luminous scaffolding is to radically delimit the space which the painting comprehends in such a way that the eye is made to feel itself in an immediate and irresistible retinal contact with every visible atom of the picture surface. Later, especially in the great paintings of the Thirties, when Bonnard gave greater priority to close-valued color of the most extraordinary intensities and could therefore abandon the kind of chiaroscuro he still relied upon in La Sieste, he made this pictorial idea the principal basis of his art. And on that basis he became a colorist whose only rival among his contemporaries was Matisse (if, in the Thirties, even Matisse could really be said to be his rival).

In La Sieste we are given only a first glimpse of this development. It remains in some respects a nineteenth-century painting, closer to Degas than to Matisse, and not only in its subject-matter but in the way it is conceived. For like Degas, Bonnard was an artist who painted with the art of the museums in his head. Thus, while the nude figure in La Sieste may very well have its origin in the painter’s personal experience, we now know that that was by no means its only source, and was probably not even its primary one. For as Sasha Newman points out in a note for the catalogue of the exhibition, the image of the sleeping figure is based, right down to the way the left foot rests on the calf of the right leg, on a Roman copy of a Greek sculpture in the Louvre. What looks so intensely personal in Bonnard is rarely quite as personal, in the anecdotal sense, as it seems. Even in the most erotic paintings, the sexual emotion remains a coefficient of the pictorial idea.

The private Bonnard is, in fact, a far more mysterious and elusive figure than he is generally thought to be.

The private Bonnard is, in fact, a far more mysterious and elusive figure than he is generally thought to be. In many of his greatest pictures—paintings of the breakfast or luncheon table, the bedroom, and the bath—the mise en scène is drawn from the most intimate moments of the artist’s domestic life, which was itself a conundrum to Bonnard’s friends. In the Nineties the artist entered into a liaison with a very young woman (“then still a child,” his friend Thadée Natanson said) who went by the name of Marthe de Méligny. Some thirty years later—in 1925—she and Bonnard were married, and it was only then that Bonnard discovered her real name, which was Maria Boursin. Even at that late date he seems to have known little or nothing about her, yet she remained something of an obsession in his life and one of the central motifs of his art until her death in 1942.

Because of the ubiquitous figure of the legendary Marthe—bathing, breakfasting, etc.—in Bonnard’s major paintings, they often give us the impression of being as diaristic as Picasso’s. Yet are they? There is undoubtedly an important connection between the intimacy of Bonnard’s subjects and the style of his art—for even his landscapes partake of this intimacy—but his paintings are, all the same, as removed from the diaristic as paintings drawn from life motifs can be. For one thing, the figure of Marthe never ages. She remains a timeless apparition of youthful sensuality—an idea or an archetype even more than a presence. In Bonnard’s paintings of her—or, for that matter, of himself—there is no trace of posturing or boasting. There are no displays of virility or emotional violence. What we are made to feel most intensely is the artist’s total absorption in what he sees and what he makes of what he sees, and this turns out to be something we had never before seen in a painting.

In these paintings drawn from the scenes of his intimate domestic life, I think we are given an important clue to Bonnard’s overriding aesthetic interests, and the reason why they remained so tenaciously tethered to the remnants of late Impressionist and Post-Impressionist picture-making. For what matters most to Bonnard—in life, we are tempted to say, as much as in his art—is the accretion and analysis of sensation. Bonnard was never a realist in the sense that Courbet or even Degas, in certain phases of his work, could be said to be, but in some fundamental aspect of his painting he was certainly a subtle and fanatical, if also a highly idiosyncratic, naturalist. He was a naturalist in the sense that Monet was a naturalist—a naturalist of the eye, concentrating more and more intently as he developed his art on the precision of his perceptions and on the vexing problem of creating an exact pictorial correlative for their faithful representation.

It is no idle paradox to suggest that naturalism of this sort—a naturalism so intensely absorbed in analyzing and refining the most minute particles of perception—must inevitably find its pictorial resolution in a kind of abstraction. That is the course traced in the late paintings of Monet, and we find something akin to this tendency in Bonnard as well. Perceptual naturalism carried to this radical extreme tends, by its very nature, to be boundless and anarchic, and must therefore invoke some countervailing principle if it is not to dissipate the sensations it has garnered in a formless miasma of atomized observation.

Bonnard had such a principle ready to hand, as it were, in the pictorial conventions of the Nabi style on which he was nurtured as a young artist. Derived from Gauguin and the Pont Aven school, these conventions placed great emphasis on “flat,” unbroken planes of highly saturated color, and constituted one of the definitive modalities of Post-Impressionist painting. In opposition to the naturalistic component of Impressionism, the Nabi style offered itself as a more “abstract” or Symbolist alternative, and Bonnard retained a strong attachment to its formalist outlook throughout his career. Yet at the same time, like his friend Vuillard, who probably influenced Bonnard a good deal in this regard, particularly in the creation of his mature style, he found the austerity and abstraction of the Nabi style insufficient for his increasingly complex purposes—insufficient, we may say, for his increasingly complex sensibility. There was no place in it for registering those accretions of sensation that became more and more essential to his temperament as an artist—and, we may infer, as a man.

To accommodate that compelling appetite for sensation, Bonnard was obliged to turn back to certain elements in the Impressionism which the Nabi painters had categorically disavowed—and which, in fact, continued to be disavowed by virtually every generation of avant-garde painters until the time came when the Abstract Expressionists rehabilitated Monet. The Impressionist element remained but one term in the dialectic of Bonnard’s style, but it was a crucially important term—for it was the means by which the private Bonnard continued to supply his painting with extraordinary reserves of lyric emotion. It was also crucially important in inspiring the kind of disapproval that Bonnard sometimes met with. The truth is, Bonnard’s decision to “return” to Impressionism was an act of great artistic daring in the art life of his time. It was one of those radical aesthetic initiatives—radical, at least, in refusing to conform to the reigning avant-garde imperatives of the moment—that are taken to be conservative and even reactionary only because they are mistaken as efforts to return to something safe and settled. Bonnard—who was almost alone among twentieth-century masters in this respect—understood that in the abandoned remnants of the old Impressionism there remained some unfinished artistic business of great creative value, and he pursued his intuition—no doubt because it offered him a vein that exactly suited his private world of feeling—with an uncommon tenacity. When Picasso dismissed Bonnard by saying “That’s not painting, what he does,” he was only, after all, saying that Bonnard had never succumbed to the influence of Cubism, and it was probably inevitable that we would have to wait until Cubism and its many offshoots and by-products had quit the cultural stage before Bonnard would come to be recognized as the master he is. That moment seems at last to have arrived.

  1. “Bonnard,” directed by Gérard Régnier, is currently on view at the Musée nationale d’art moderne at the Pompidou Center (Beaubourg) in Paris (Feb. 23-May 21), and will then travel to the Phillips Collection in Washington (June 9-Aug. 20) and the Dallas Museum of Art (Sept. 16-Nov. 20), co-organizers of the exhibition. The exhibition catalogue (Bonnard, 291 pages, 170 francs), published in the lavish format of the Pompidou Center’s “Classiques du XXe siècle” series, contains an introduction by John Russell and essays by Jean Clair, Steven A. Nash, Margrit Hahnloser-Ingold, and Jean-François Chevrier, in addition to Antoine Terrasse’s chronology of the artist’s life, excerpts from Bonnard’s notebooks, reproductions of his photographs, and extensive notes on the individual paintings. Go back to the text.
  2. This episode was discussed by James Thrall Soby in his introduction to Bonnard and His Environment (Museum of Modern Art, 1964). Go back to the text.

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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 2 Number 9, on page 1
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